Incarceron, by Catherine Fisher

IncarceronI went on an awesome road trip adventure a few weeks ago and needed an audiobook to pass the time, but all of the audiobooks I had saved up were meant for both me and Scott to listen to, so I was at a loss. I wandered the shelves of my various libraries as well as their OverDrive sites and found several candidates, of which this one ended up being the winner for its intriguing premise and YA-ness, which I presumed would make it an easier listen.

I was wrong.

I’m not sure what happened with this audiobook that I found myself completely lost at parts trying to figure out what had happened to cause what was currently happening, but I am really hoping it was a result of me paying more attention to the road than the story. But even the parts where I felt like I knew what was going on were a little weird, so… who knows?

The interesting premise is that there is a boy who lives in a prison called Incarceron, which no one enters and no one leaves — everyone is born there and dies there. But this boy, Finn, is convinced that he came from Outside and would very much like to go back there, because Incarceron is a hellhole. On the outside is a girl called Claudia who is the daughter of Incarceron’s warden and for whatever reason is obsessed with Incarceron. She manages to make contact with Finn and realized that he might be able to make her life better, if only she can get him out of there.

But it’s really really weird and complicated. Claudia’s world is de jure Victorian for no good reason, and the people in it believe that Incarceron is a utopian place despite the fact that it is called Incarceron. Finn may or may not be the rightful heir to the Victorian throne and former fiancé of Claudia, but he currently lives in a world of good and bad and has fallen in with the bad crowd. There are politics and intrigue all over the place, and considering how poorly I kept all the players and plots straight while driving, I’m not sure I could have done it sitting still and reading!

And then, just for good measure, there are all these weird twists and reversals that don’t make a lot of sense or are just kind of stupid. Spoilers ahead! Throughout the book we are told that no one can enter or leave Incarceron, but the warden does it all the time so… And then it turns out that the warden did put Claudia’s fiancé into Incarceron, but apparently by spreading his being all over the world? So Finn might have parts of the rightful heir in his DNA or whatever, but he’s not actually the same person? But then Claudia goes into Incarceron and stays just herself, so I’m unclear on why the original Finn had to be destroyed? And then we find out that Claudia was actually born in Incarceron and adopted by her father, so clearly people can leave, but only if they’re tiny? Oh, and Incarceron turns out to be this miniature place that the warden carries around in his pocket or whatever, and also it is alive and sentient but can only see what’s inside of it and is very depressed about this fact. As prisons are.

Unspoilers: There’s just too much. I feel like there are a lot of interesting pieces to this story (many that I haven’t mentioned here) that could have made really good stories on their own, or could have been saved for the sequels that I will never read, but there are just too many pieces for this one short book.

On the other hand, this book has won many awards and received many accolades from people who know books, so maybe I missed more than I thought I did?

Recommendation: For eyes-reading only, and probably better for actual young adults with the brainpower to keep everything straight.

Rating: 5/10

Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh

Hyperbole and a HalfI don’t have a ton of experience with the wonder that is Hyperbole and a Half, but I’m pretty sure it is some sort of comic/diary mashup and I am positive that everything I’ve read on it is awesome. I was introduced to the site via Brosh’s fantastic post about the mystical alot, and later the CLEAN ALL THE THINGS post; more recently Brosh put up two posts about depression that made the rounds of my internets and were actually quite informative though also sad-making.

Those may possibly the only posts I’ve seen on that site itself, so I was excited to read this book and see what I’d been missing — like other blogs to books, it is comprised of posts from the blog as well as some new content, though I could not tell you which might be which.

The book starts (well, after the introduction) with an essay about a time capsule Brosh left for herself at ten and dug up at 27, which contains a letter asking lots of questions about Future Allie, enumerating the kinds of dogs Ten-Year-Old Allie liked, and requesting that Future Allie please write back. Brosh takes this request to heart and writes back to several of her past iterations to give them some useful advice, though if they could have taken the advice we would not have this amusing essay or the rest of this book, so…

Several of the essays recount stories of Brosh’s two adorably mentally challenged puppies (is there any other kind?), and these might be my favorites just because I miss my own puppies and their ridiculous personalities but that is totally valid. Puppies are weird! They make strange noises and try to protect you from things that don’t even exist! These are truths I think anyone can relate to, unless they’ve managed never to have a pet, which is a situation that should be rectified immediately. But maybe not with one of Brosh’s dogs.

Actually, my favorite story might be the one in which Brosh’s mother takes her children for a nice walk in the woods that turns into a more-than-seven-hour attempt to find a way back to civilization. Brosh’s mother does not want to worry the children and sends them off to find all the pine cones while she figures out what to do, but of course she does not know what to do and her children are left wondering why they aren’t allowed to go home anymore. Brosh makes one of my worst nightmares a delightfully comical experience — probably because, spoiler alert, she survives to tell the tale.

Brosh makes a lot of things delightfully comical, whether they start out terrifying or sad or mundane, and her simple drawings make everything just that much better. I really didn’t need more things to read on the internet, but I think Hyperbole and a Half might just make the cut in my RSS reader.

Recommendation: For lovers of truth bombs, dysfunctional childhoods, puppies, and fun.

Rating: 9/10

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name VerityThis is one of those books that I haven’t heard much about (well, relatively speaking), but everything I’ve heard has been along the lines of, “OMG CODE NAME VERITY OMG OMG.” I was, obviously, intrigued, and so I had it checked out of the library shortly after my library obtained a copy of it, but then it had to go back due to massive holds list and I forgot about it in favor of many other books. When I saw it somewhere on the internet again recently, though, I knew it was time to embrace the awesome.

So when I started reading the book and it was kind of boring and confusing, I was quite disappointed. The book starts with the sentence, “I AM A COWARD,” (yes, in all caps) and our narrator goes on to talk about how she got captured by the Nazis for looking the wrong way down the street in France (seeing as she’s British), and how she has exchanged some useful information for some clothing and this convenient supply of ink and paper on which she is to write down all the other useful information she can think of. Yay?

Then she gets distracted from writing about planes and airfields and writes instead about her BFF Maddie and how said BFF met her, Queenie, and how Maddie worked her way into flying planes and being a part of the war effort and really being kind of a badass pilot and friend. Oh, and also how Maddie did not survive dropping Queenie off in France and how Queenie feels incredibly guilty about this fact. And I was like, okay, this is pretty interesting, I like that this story is about ladies doing awesome things and feeling feelings that have naught to do with boys and so clearly that is why everyone loves this book.

But then the story started coming to a close right there in the middle of all those pages, and I was like, well, what’s going to happen next, then?

And SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS ahead if you’re the type who wants to be surprised by a story, and I have to admit that I adored being surprised by this story.

What happens next is that Queenie’s story ends with her being dragged away from her paper and ink and Maddie’s story begins with the fact that she is totally not dead in France and continues to poke very interesting holes in Queenie’s story. It also starts basically right where Queenie’s does, so it becomes a sort of race against time — will Maddie rescue Queenie from the Germans in time or will she herself be captured or what the heck is going to happen why won’t these pages turn faster!

Ahem. And whatever you guess is going to happen to our two narrators, you are going to be wrong, because this book is tricksy and conniving and also just absolutely mean and left me unexpectedly crying into my limeade in the café area of Publix. You should probably read the last part of this book in the privacy of your own home, with some tissues available, is what I am saying.

In summation: omg, Code Name Verity. omg, omg.

Recommendation: For fans of badass ladies and those who are more prepared than I was for a good cry.

Rating: 10/10

Equal Rites, by Terry Pratchett

Equal RitesI read my first Terry Pratchett novel almost a year ago after picking it up by chance in my favorite Cleveland used bookstore. So obviously, when I found myself in said bookstore again, and there were three used Pratchetts just sitting there waiting for me, I snapped them all up without reservation. And when I found myself on a plane in a middle seat with my intended next read up in the overhead bin but those three paperbacks sitting under the seat in front of me, I grabbed the one on top and settled in for a good read.

And it was! I was a little iffy at first on the premise, which is that there’s a baby girl accidentally given wizard powers by a dying wizard who meant to give them to a baby boy, because of course boys can be wizards and girls can be witches and neither the other way around. Yay.

It’s a premise that has been done before, but Pratchett does it in his own reasonably amusing style and so therefore it’s done better. The girl wizard, Esk, grows up not knowing about her wizardliness, and when her magic starts to show her witchy grandmother tries to teach her the witchly ways but soon realizes that just won’t be enough. So Esk and Granny Weatherwax set off on a journey to the wizard school, a journey that is of course full of adventure and danger and magic. Sold!

There is also, as you might expect, a bit of discussion about women’s rights and the nature of girls versus boys, but it’s surprisingly nuanced and intelligent for an ostensibly humorous book. That Pratchett is wily!

As before, what really makes the story is Pratchett’s way with words. From the first page: “This is also a story about sex, although probably not in the athletic, tumbling, count-the-legs-and-divide-by-two sense unless the characters get totally beyond the author’s control. They might.”

From a random page in the middle: “For the first time in her life Granny wondered whether there might be something important in all these books people were setting such store by these days, although she was opposed to books on strict moral grounds, since she had heard that many of them were written by dead people and therefore it stood to reason reading them would be as bad as necromancy.”

Like Guards, Guards!, this book is pretty simple plot-wise and character-wise, but writing-wise it is doubleplusgood and therefore the perfect plane or beach or lunchtime or anytime reading. I am very glad I have two more of Pratchett’s books on hand, and more glad that there are like eight million more to read after those!

Recommendation: To copy myself, for fans of British humor (i.e. Douglas Adams, Monty Python) and fantasy novels and satire and fun.

Rating: 7/10

And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains Echoed-peeks in- Uh, hi there! Insert apologies for absence here, something about New Job and New Apartment and Temporary Lack of Internet and whatever, let’s talk about books!

One of the members of my book club had the rest of the club choose between this book and The Fault in Our Stars as our July book, and although at the time I would much rather have re-read TFiOS (because AWESOME) than read another Hosseini novel, I am very glad that I was forced to read this instead, because AWESOME.

Beware the rest of this post, because while I think that you can’t really spoil a novel like this, I personally really enjoyed knowing nothing at all about this book before diving in, so if you are that kind of reader just run away, obtain this book, and read the heck out of it.

The book starts off as a person telling some other people a sort of fairy tale story about a fellow who loses his favorite son to a tricky demon/god thing. The father decides, naturally, that he must go get his son back, so he braves all the things and makes his way to the demon/god’s home for wayward children, which turns out to be this great and awesome place and the father is now forced to choose between taking his son home to a decidedly not-great and not-awesome place, or leaving his son with the demon/god and losing all memory of said son’s existence. Aaaugh, that is a terrible choice.

So then in the next chapter it turns out that the storyteller was a father with two children whose own stories may possibly closely match the story in the first chapter, and it’s terrible watching this story play out in “real” life (oh, frame stories!) but also so very interesting.

Which is basically how the rest of the book plays out. The chapters each feature a different character and tell his or her story, or at least the parts that are interesting and relate to the other characters and chapters. Most of the stories involve some terrible thing that happens and focus on how the protagonist deals or refuses to deal with it, and although the results are invariably depressing on some level they are also kind of amazingly relatable. I came away from so many of the stories thinking, yes, that is a true thing that is true but I had never really thought of it in that way and now I feel rather enlightened, but also depressed.

I think my favorite of the chapters is the fifth one, in which two cousins return to their family home in Afghanistan in an attempt to reclaim the family lands abandoned many years previous. The one cousin is this outgoing and ostentatious dude, totally excited by the prospect of being back in the homeland and doing homeland-y type things and being a sort of savior to his people or whatever. The other is totally grossed out by his cousin but finds himself drawn to a little girl who obviously needs medical help, help that he as a doctor could probably totally provide if he just pulled the right strings, and while he’s in Afghanistan he makes all these grand plans but when he gets back to America (SPOILERS!) those plans take a backseat to, like, being a fairly well-off doctor who doesn’t have to worry himself about random children on another continent. I think everyone can relate to getting really excited about a thing or a cause and then having that excitement die off as regular life intrudes and says, hey, that couch over there looks really comfy, you should go have a nap on it; but of course when it’s a person and not a thing it’s so much worse, and our protagonist cousin knows this. This chapter is a heart-stabber, and I love it.

As with any story collection, which is more or less what this is, there are some stories that are less awesome than, say, my favorite one. But I am hard-pressed to think of any that were bad or disappointing, and if there are any you can probably skip them without losing too much of the thread of the novel. Though considering how eager I was to keep reading this book, even in the midst of a disappointingly short vacation, I don’t think there’s much worry about that.

I was really not expecting, when I started this book, to come here to the blog and sing its praises, or to have a book club meeting about it where we just all said, “Oh, this part is so good! And this part! And this other part! And all the parts!” But it is totally deserving of all those exclamation marks, and more, and if you have a nice long plane adventure ahead of you this will definitely make it seem a lot shorter (she says, from experience).

Recommendation: For those who love short stories that fit together to make a whole novel, those who want to learn more about Afghanistan, and those who don’t mind being incredibly depressed about the whole thing.

Rating: 10/10

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

American GodsFinally! Finally, I have read through the entire American Gods canon. Backwards, of course, because that’s how I roll (that is not how I roll). First it was Anansi Boys, all the way back in 2009, and then “Monarch of the Glen” in… 2011?! Goodness, time flies.

Now it is American Gods and I must say that this is probably my favorite of the set, for many reasons, including a) I don’t really remember the other stories that well just now, b) but this is definitely a different story than the others, c) I’ve got some more Gaiman under my belt and have an idea of what’s going on here in general, and d) it’s really just an awesome book. How awesome? It has an epilogue, that I liked. Inconceivable!

Right, so, anyway, what is this book about, you ask? Well, basically what it says on the tin. There’s a fella called Shadow who finds himself in the employ of one Mr. Wednesday, whose stalking capabilities are second to none and who turns out to be a certain god who is interested in getting together the old gang of immigrant gods to fight against the new American gods (TV, computers, and the like) who are snuffing said old gods out. Of course, it’s not that easy, and so Shadow finds himself trying to avoid some shadowy and poorly code-named government agents (Mr. Wood? Mr. Town? Quite creative, those) while also trying to figure out what to do with his undead wife who just wants to love him with her cold, nonbeating heart. You know, the usual.

But most of the book isn’t really about that war of the gods plot so much as it is about introducing the various gods in their guises and disguises, whether it’s a star goddess or a folk hero or stereotypically drunk leprechaun. Gaiman obviously had a lot of fun putting the old gods into the modern day, and although some of them seem mysterious at first he doesn’t leave you hanging too long on their actual identities so that you can go Wikipedia the heck out of them — which makes me think, man, if only this book had been written a few years later it would have had some really strange and interesting gods.

I was afraid I wouldn’t like the ending when I saw it wrapping up a little too quickly, but after it played out I thought it was done quite well, that it made sense, and that I will definitely need to acquire my own copy of this book so I can go read it again and see how everything fits together. And the epilogue, seriously, someone needs to go inform all the other epilogue writers that this is how you do it — none of that “btw this is what happened with all those other things” and all of that “here’s a scene or two that takes place later that happens to tie up some loose ends, nbd”.

Now I have to go read the sequel stories again so that I can understand them better… maybe in two years?

Recommendation: Do recommend. For lovers of mythology, America, and Neil Gaiman.

Rating: 9/10

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach

StiffMary Roach is one of the few nonfiction authors whom I have on my list of “authors whose entire backlist I should go read right now,” which is partially because I just don’t read that much nonfiction but mostly because Mary Roach writes that special kind of nonfiction that doesn’t feel like learning and therefore I am more willing to listen to it!

And I do mean listen — I don’t actually have any experience with Mary Roach in print form because I take her on road trips with me instead! This is good, because I get to listen to awesome and weird and often gross things that help keep me awake in the umpteenth hour of driving, but also kind of bad because the books end up running together with all the other podcasts and NPR segments I listen to.

That’s not so much a problem with this book, Roach’s first and the last of her backlist I had yet to read (now on to her newest book, Gulp!), because it’s about dead bodies and what strange things we do with them, like donating them to science or breaking them down via composting or plastinating them (is that a verb? I’m going with it) and showing them off to people who can’t decide whether to be intrigued or creeped out. I don’t hear much about that on NPR these days…

I think I was most interested by the parts about donating bodies to science and what sorts of rules and regulations there are for using said bodies and also the strange visceral reactions people have to the use of their dead relatives. I found it strange that a person might have a problem with a relative becoming a crash test dummy or otherwise being an entire body doing something gross or embarrassing for a live person, but be perfectly fine having a relative sort of chopped up into pieces suitable for use on smaller-scale experiments.

I also liked the foray into the funeral business and the true creepiness that is the embalming and beautifying process for those open-casket funerals (which will not be happening to any relatives on my watch, because seriously, creepy), and was supremely grossed out by the chapter on head transplants and the scientific experiments on animals who deserved better from life than to suffer that indignity.

But as always, no matter whether I’m amused or disgusted by what Roach is talking about, she makes the topic as accessible and humorous as possible. I think Roach could do wonders for education if she sat down and wrote a science curriculum or two, but then I wouldn’t have her available to write books for me, so I guess those kids will just have to deal with what they’ve got!

Recommendation: For people with strong stomachs and a love of weird science trivia.

Rating: 7/10